Back to the Foosball

When the recession hit, employers buckled down by rallying their troops to keep their heads down and make great things happen. As part of that resolve, it wasn’t uncommon to see perks like the office Wii gathering dust — after all, “playing” when you were lucky to have a job didn’t seem tasteful.

But now we’re seeing the re-emergence of play in the office — and, hopefully, what it’s revealing to employers is that having a release isn’t just “cool” for culture, but a real part of productivity.

In the late 90s, one of my employees requested that I get a foosball table for the office. I think I’m a pretty open-minded kind of guy and thought, “Sure. Why not? I have a great team of talented professionals who really get the business and work hard. They deserve a little fun, plain and simple.”

But the concerned, managerial voice in the back of my head was saying, “Keep an eye on productivity, Bob.”

So over the next six months or so I watched the numbers. Each month I checked to see what they looked like. After six months, watching the numbers became a total waste of time. Why? Because what I found was refreshing, surprising, and very impressive: productivity actually increased — and not by a little bit – by 10-15 percent.

What design firm wouldn’t want to see numbers like that?

Some of the benefits of that foosball table were obvious. One was we were cultivating really good foosball players. Our staff started including more competitive individuals whose enthusiasm seemed to translate from the foosball table to the conference room table.

Another was that the playing field, so to speak, was even during those competitions. Everyone could practice, get better, and challenge each other to healthy matches. (For example, I was the boss, but couldn’t play to save my life. By the time I figured out where the ball was then figured out which lever to pull and which little guy I needed to hit the ball with, the ball had moved to my opponent’s man — who was already all over it and could easily out score me. I felt lucky if I got a point or two each game. And my employees loved that. Maybe a little too much.)

I learned that business conversations would occur spontaneously over the foosball table. “Score!!! – Oh hey, by the way, what did you think of that new wood sample for the conference room?” wasn’t a unique type of conversation. I realized that work was actually getting done while people were “disconnected” from their desks – likely because they were still in the work environment, playing with colleagues, and – while at the foosball table – definitely awake and engaged.

But perhaps most importantly, I saw from a business standpoint that my team was building communication. The people who played together in group matches learned how to communicate quickly and effectively with their team members. They learned to strategize against “the other guys.” They respected and appreciated each other much more and, even if you were as lousy a foosball player as I was, you were a part of the team – and encouraged to get better.

Really, it wasn’t even about foosball. It was about a team building, communication, and winning.

In fact, our win rate went up. The energy and spirit borne from a simple addition of a game in the work environment directly translated to successes in my team’s performance overall, their support of each other, and the pitches that we made. It was fun. There were a lot of smiles. We worked a lot of hours – a lot of hours! And when the inevitable frustrating issues arose, a lot of them generally got worked out at the foosball table.

So, lessons learned? Foosball — or any similar tool like the Wii, ping pong, or concerted game nights — does improve productivity. And, sometimes, the best teachers about this kind of value are your employees themselves.

Foosball image credit PurplePawn.com: http://www.purplepawn.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/11_foosball_2.jpg

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